A penny for your thoughts: When customers don't complain

September 27, 2006

When it comes to consumer contentment, managers and executives should not mistake silence for satisfaction.


In fact, just the opposite is true: Most unhappy customers never say a word; they just take their business elsewhere.


That kind of silence is not golden. Consumer-complaint expert Nancy Stephens, an associate professor of marketing at the W. P. Carey School of Business, urges companies to do everything possible to encourage unhappy consumers to give businesses the chance to make things right -- and to keep their customers.


Managers and executives are making a big mistake if their goal is to tamp down complaining, Stephens says.


"They need to find ways to get people to complain, speak up, give feedback, etc.," he says. "They always want to be hearing from customers. In order to get people to speak up, managers and executives need to empower customers -- let them know that they will always be heard, listened to and taken seriously."



The silent defector


Stephens' work helps businesspeople do a better job by understanding why customers react the way they do.


In "Why Don't Some People Complain? A Cognitive-Emotive Process Model of Consumer Complaint Behavior," Stephens and co-author Kevin P. Gwinner of East Carolina University, wrote that up to two-thirds of customers do not report their dissatisfaction. Their "Consumer Complaint" article in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science also notes that most prior research had been on complaining as a response to dissatisfaction; Stephens and Gwinner's work moved the focus to the reasons why most unhappy campers fall into the non-complaining, "silent defection" category. "Then perhaps adroit firms can convert these silent defections into 'voicing' behaviors," their article states.


Through detailed interviews with scores of actual consumers, the authors found that "dissatisfying marketplace experiences" give rise to three coping strategies:


  • Problem-focused, in which unhappy customers do take action and make their feelings known to the offending party.
  • Emotion-focused, in which sad, fearful customers engage instead in self-blame, self-control, denial and the seeking of social support by venting to uninvolved third parties who can't help.
  • Avoidance, in which the customers, feeling shame and/or guilt about their dissatisfaction, focus on physically getting away from the stressful situation.

In a problem-focused scenario, "one might complain to a restaurant server that a steak has been overcooked," the authors say. "In contrast, emotion-focused coping styles are directed to managing an individual's mental state rather than directly addressing the problem. ... Instead of complaining about an overcooked steak, an individual might accept responsibility for the error by convincing himself that he didn't give the order properly."



Finding a balance of power


The result is not only a lose-lose situation for the customer and the business, but another unhealthy injection of stress into the lives of all involved parties. The authors note that earlier research (Lazarus and DeLongis) showed that "the stress created by the daily hassles of life is a better predictor of psychological and physical health than the stress brought about by major life events."


Non-complaining customers sometimes simply are avoiding the stress of confrontation. In other instances they don't know to whom to complain. At times, a novel or ambiguous situation presents a particularly hard-to-solve problem for the customer and the business.


"Ambiguity is likely to intensify threat appraisals because it lessens people's sense of control and increases their sense of helplessness," Stephens and Gwinner report, calling for a fair "balance of power" between the customer and the organization. "If an organization has established and promoted systems for handling complaints, customers may feel their problems will be taken seriously."


Customers sometimes do not complain for fear that others will view them negatively. Sometimes they feel sympathy for the frontline worker. Therefore, workers must be trained to take a sincere interest in customers and to make it clear that they welcome complaints and want to make it "easy and painless" for customers to tell them something is wrong.


"Firms that are able to increase a customer's coping potential are in the best position to increase the number of individuals voicing their displeasure and thus have the opportunity to remedy the problem and retain the customer," Stephens and Gwinner state. The initiative should be taken by the organization, not the customer. "For example, it is not enough to leave comment cards on a restaurant table. A server or manager should tell diners that their opinions are valued and directly request that they complete the cards."



Managers: see for yourself


Can everyday managerial observation improve the complaint process?


"Yes. Managers can learn a great deal if they simply watch their customers at the point of service," Stephens says. "I am a big advocate of management spending time watching, listening to or interacting with actual customers. In the corporate environment, where vice presidents sit in an office tower completely removed from their customers, it brings to life all the marketing research reports that land on their desks. There's nothing more piercing than hearing a customer say that your service is baloney because of XYZ reason; it brings to life the need to listen to customers and to serve them better."


Does this all boil down to the old saw about the customer always being right?


"I do not believe the customer is always right. The customer is sometimes wrong and sometimes unreasonable," Stephens says. "What I do believe is that the customer is always to be respected and listened to carefully. In the majority of cases, the company should try to say 'yes' to customers and do what customers want. However, in some minority of cases, customers should be heard and then told 'no.'


"They should not be allowed, for example, to abuse the company's employees or policies. Even the vaunted Southwest Airlines and Nordstrom department stores will 'fire' customers who are abusive. Southwest Airlines told a customer that they didn't want his business ever again after he was verbally abusive to a counter clerk when a flight was delayed."


Stephens' research shows that firms that encourage legitimate complaints may experience a small increase in fraudulent claims, but welcoming criticism still is worthwhile.


"Have you ever ordered from Lands' End? Regular LE customers know that they can complain or return anything at any time and not be questioned," she says. "They feel empowered. This is what all companies should strive for because it's so much better to hear about the problems than to not hear about them.


"If managers will do this, the implication for customers is that they will get better service and will feel better about the relationship with the company -- and business life will be what it is supposed to be -- a fair exchange between two equal parties."


Customers must be assured that their problems matter to the business and that changes will be made to avoid repeat problems.


"The result of not hearing from your customers is that in most markets which are competitive, you may have problems that you never learn about because customers will simply go down the street to your competitor. They will not tell you about problems. Slowly, your business melts away and you have no idea why," Stephens says.


"An organization wants to be hearing from its customers all the time, and it should strive to find ways to get constant feedback, even in the form of complaints. It is a bad idea to do one or two market surveys each year -- surveying and listening to the market should be a continuous process."



Bottom line:


  • Sincerely encourage customers to complain. A bad experience is not "just the way it is." It can be fixed.
  • Take an active role in eliciting consumer complaints: If your process is too passive, customers will silently defect to your competitors.
  • The more competitive your field of business is, the greater the danger is that your customers will avoid a complaint process that they view to be a hassle.
  • Make sure employees take complaints seriously and let customers know they will be treated fairly in a well thought out process that is open to continual improvement.